Executive Director Reports

2020—Let’s carry it on!

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

2019 has been a year we won’t forget

What a year 2019 has been for public service employees in Illinois. January brought the final days of former governor Bruce Rauner’s term of office—the end of four long years of ceaseless assaults on union members, our rights, our wages and benefits, and on the services we provide.

After suffering one of the worst defeats in Illinois history in the 2018 election—a firm repudiation of his slash-and-burn tactics—Rauner nonetheless pressed on with his attacks on workers’ rights until his last official breath in office.

He refused to comply with an Illinois Labor Relations Board order that state employees should be restored to their proper step and made whole in the wake of the illegal freeze he’d imposed during his first months in office. He also refused to comply with the Labor Board’s order to return to the bargaining table with our union once his claim of “impasse” had been rejected by the appellate court. And he filed petitions at the Labor Board seeking to strip some 1,000 state employees of their collective bargaining rights.

State employees were undoubtedly Rauner’s top target, but they were not the only ones harmed by his policies. When he forced a budget stalemate in an effort to push through anti-union legislation, many nonprofit human service agencies that depend on state funding were forced to lay off staff or even close their doors, harming communities most in need. The budget stalemate also cut off state funding to local governments, leaving cities and counties struggling.

State universities were particularly hard-hit—both their operating budgets and their student assistance grants—by a governor who appeared to be hostile to the very notion that working people should have access to affordable higher education.

Then, of course, there was Rauner’s zealous campaign to eliminate union fair share fees in the hope of bankrupting public sector unions. When the courts struck down his initial executive order and denied his standing to file suit in federal court, an amended lawsuit with state employee Mark Janus as the plaintiff was filed. And when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 40 years of settled law and declared fair share fees unconstitutional in 2018, Rauner claimed credit and crowed that the ruling would propel employees to abandon their unions in droves. But rather than drop out, thousands of employees signed AFSCME Strong cards and pledged to remain union members.

In the end, Bruce Rauner had few allies and even fewer friends. Only a handful of entities—like the fiercely anti-worker Chicago Tribune and the fiercely anti-union Illinois Policy Institute—stuck with him to the bitter end.

Many factors contributed to Rauner’s political demise, but undoubtedly one of the biggest was the unwavering resistance that AFSCME members mounted to his perverse assaults. Every type of employee from every corner of the state came together in demonstrations large and small, from massive rallies in the streets to informational pickets at worksites.

In mid-January 2019 a new governor was inaugurated and a new era ushered in. In a matter of months, the pace quickened and spirits lifted.

With Governor JB Pritzker’s leadership, the state’s minimum wage rose, funding for state universities and K-12 education was increased, assaults on pensions were rebuffed, and perhaps most importantly, the fair tax constitutional amendment was approved for voter referendum that could provide a permanent fix for Illinois’ crumbling financial edifice.

For AFSCME members, the changes were equally momentous. By early April, state employees had all been restored to their appropriate steps. By June a new union contract was in place that included raises totaling 11.5% over the term of the contract. By September employees had received back wages plus interest for the steps that had been withheld.

Over the past year, local governments have become more stable as a steady stream of state funding has aided their finances. State universities have begun to regain their footing and rebuild their standing. Nonprofit agencies have received additional funds to help boost the wages of their underpaid employees. And new legislation was enacted to aid public sector unions in meeting the challenges posed by the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling.

With each passing month, it became ever clearer that union members were tolling the final bell for Bruce Rauner’s fantasy of an eviscerated labor movement, impoverished by the end of fair share fees.

Instead public sector unions have regrouped, stronger than ever. Instead of leaving the union, state employees who have lost their bargaining rights are pressing to regain union representation. Instead of lying low, teachers and support staff in Chicago went out on strike for nearly three weeks—and won!

Instead of shying away from political activity, AFSCME and other unions joined together in Chicago and other cities around the state to elect growing numbers of progressive, pro-worker candidates to city councils. Instead of accepting that low wages are the price of providing human and health services to those in need, more and more of these human service workers are coming together to form unions and demand a living wage.

It’s been a year that few of us will ever forget, and most will want to remember for decades to come—a compelling reminder of the power of solidarity. We lit a fire, AFSCME family. Let’s keep it burning brighter than ever in the new year.